Sharps & flats

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band offer a bracing live set of cosmopolitan country -- and an alternative to all that Nashville pap.

Published June 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lyle Lovett is the demented stepbrother of the country-music world. His eternally wry sense of humor, his sly forays into acting (he was one of the joys of last summer's "The Opposite of Sex") and his enviously bizarre love life all conspire to make Lovett a much more compelling character than the milquetoast, cookie-cutter, country-pop crossovers who clutter the charts. And yet Lovett's peculiarities have done little to lessen his popular appeal: True, he's not moving units like Garth Brooks, but his last album of new material, 1996's "The Road to Ensenada," won a Grammy, and he still regularly sells out large concert halls.

"Live in Texas," Lovett's first album in a decade with what he calls his Large Band, is a wonderfully satisfying jazz-pop-country amalgam. Lovett's songs can more or less be divided into two categories -- tongue-in-cheek romps and plaintive ballads -- and both types get ample workouts here, showcasing his band's enviable ability to inhabit songs without overpowering them.

A pair of gospel-tinged numbers from "Joshua Judges Ruth" (1992) set the musical and whimsical tone. "I've Been to Memphis" has an easy funk and great honky-tonk piano breaks, while "Church," with Lovett's deadpan theological introspection, describes a congregation stuck in a sweltering hot chapel listening to a windbag preacher. The boisterous, horn-led band and the appreciative San Antonio audience invigorate both songs with a simmering energy. Other upbeat cuts like "Penguins," from "I Love Everybody" (1994), and the stop-start "Here I Am," where a freakishly erudite Lovett tries to pick up a stranger in a diner, round out the more boisterous songs on this 14-track set.

As always, Lovett is equally adept at spotlighting his more introspective, emotionally cutting side. "Nobody Knows Me," a gut-wrenching tale of love lost to infidelity, is as touching as "Penguins" is invigorating. The yearning "If I Had a Boat" is surprisingly intimate, and Rickie Lee Jones helps make "North Dakota" both touching and gorgeous.

Lovett is an all-too-rare commodity: a country star with crossover appeal who doesn't dilute either his roots or his vision. While "Live in Texas" is more of a jazz-pop revue than a yee-haw banjo and mandolin effort, Lovett does not pander. Instead, he shapes his disparate influences and molds them around his silky voice and singular vision. And that vision is a delight.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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